Words at Work

How effective writing helps your business succeed.

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Why Read Your Newsletter? Because It’s Fun

December 4th, 2012 · Marketing

Yes, your marketing newsletter’s primary purpose is to attract new clients. But if its only message is one big advertisement for your products or services, you will quickly lose readers. Along with the serious and helpful content of your newsletter, there must be fun.

But what is fun? People have different ideas of what this word means. What’s fun for you could be tedious for me or unpleasant for someone else.

Here’s a definition I found that sums it up well for me.

We inherently know when we’re having fun, and when we’re not.  And as a socialized species, we all have generalized conceptions of what is fun and what isn’t.

I will define “fun” as anything that is done solely for enjoyment or amusement, making us happy, and I consider it synonymous with “play.”

Lauren Vespoli, Dartmouth

Since “fun” means different things to different people, to make your e-news fun you must include a variety of different experiences, such as

  • Surprises. Pay attention to comedians. Much of what they do that makes us laugh comes from expecting one thing and suddenly encountering another.
  • Jokes. You read and hear them often. If you are the kind of person who forgets the punchline, take notes. Try to make a joke relevant to your business topic.
  • Puzzles and games. Many people, including me, love working out puzzles and games. Consider featuring a quiz about your area of expertise.
  • Cute animal pictures. These are a staple of the Internet. Consider using them if they make you laugh or say “awww…”

It might be overkill to use all of these in one newsletter, but include one, two or three in each issue. Watch for entertaining and enjoyable content in magazines and newspapers and while web-surfing, and save scans and links to a special newsletter file. When it comes time to put the next newsletter together, you will be ready to assemble your saved items in a collection that offers your readers a good time. Fun is hard to define, but we all crave it, and we all know when we are having it.

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Five Ways to Grab Your E-News Audience

November 6th, 2012 · Uncategorized

We’re all trying so hard to get information about our businesses out to potential clients.  An e-newsletter is an ideal strategy because it brings your information right to their in-boxes. All they have to do is click and read.

Nearly every business will benefit from an e-newsletter—but you have to get them to read it. Everyone’s inboxes are crammed with all types of e-mails, all competing for attention. What attracts people to open your message, and what keeps them reading?

Think about it. What makes you want to open an email?

Here are five ways to encourage your audience to open, read and enjoy your newsletter—and keep coming back for future issues.

1. Have a specific, punchy subject line.

It all starts here. If your subject line doesn’t make the grade, readers won’t give your newsletter a try. A subject line such as “January Newsletter” or “The Latest News from XYZ Company” is unlikely to motivate anyone to read on. They need a teaser, a promise of what they may learn—such as “Secrets to a cleaner carpet” or “Five ways to keep your car running smoothly.” I know I can never resist opening an e-news that promises a numbered list of helpful hints, or one that promises inside information.

2. Give something away.

Make the newsletter valuable to your readers by giving them something in each issue. Give away a bit of the specialized knowledge you have gained through your business. If people feel they will learn something that will help them or save them money, they will be eager to read your newsletter. At the same time, you will gain credibility as a knowledgeable practitioner of your business.

3. Keep the articles short.

People don’t want to keep scrolling too far down as they read your newsletter. If you have more to say than a short paragraph, post the article on your website or blog and put in a link to it. This has the added advantage of bringing people to your website or blog.

4. Add pictures—but not too many pictures.

Busy people have short attention spans. Add images to prevent long, discouraging patches of print. But don’t add too many pictures. Remember that some people’s browsers will not show the images. All they will see is a big red X.

5. Make it fun.

All the above will bring readers into your e-newsletter. Adding entertainment is what will keep them coming back to future issues. Scan the web for links to funny and entertaining pictures and stories that are relevant to your particular business. Put in a quiz or contest for those who like to test their knowledge. You may even want to offer a prize, such as a free consultation or some other type of freebie connected with your business.

How will you know if your e-news is well received? E-mail marketing service providers give you statistics regarding the number of opens and clicks your e-mail inspires. You may get comments, and we hope you will get calls and emails from new or returning customers. That’s what it’s all about.

Try these tips and see if they work for you. I’d appreciate any feedback.


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Five Pet Peeves about Punctuation

October 3rd, 2011 · Writing

Punctuation is important.

Punctuation is important.

In case you missed it, Saturday, September 24 was the eighth annual National Punctuation Day.

This holiday was invented by Jeff Rubin, who runs a newsletter publishing company in Pinole, California. The NPD website includes links to a variety of interesting materials, not the least of which is this article about how a comma in a contract cost a telecommunications company more than $2 million.

Now that I’ve demonstrated the importance of correct punctuation, let’s take a look at five annoying but common punctuation mistakes.

5.  Exclamation proliferation
As an editor I see this often. Many people seem to think that if one exclamation point is good, three or four are better. It looks like this:

We’re having a Punctuation Day event this Saturday! Don’t miss it! Come and join the fun!!!

Ironically, more exclamation points don’t add emotion to your statements — they remove it. This is the same principle as using the f-word in every sentence. Such habits rob that particular word of its former power.

4. Commas and quotes
Commas and periods normally belong inside quotation marks. This can get confusing when the quotation marks are around a title rather than some spoken words.

Incorrect: He read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”.

Correct:  He read the poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

3.  By the numbers
Plurals of numbers do not contain apostrophes.

Correct: the 1930s.

If you leave out part of a number, an apostrophe may be used to take its place.

Correct:  the ‘60s.


Two for one spelling and punctuation error

Two-for-one spelling and punctuation error

2.  Apostrophes in plurals
Plural nouns do not include apostrophes. When an apostrophe is used with a plural noun it shows possession.

Correct: The Smiths brought a box of candy. We also enjoyed the Jacksons’ sandwiches.

1.  Apostrophes in contractions
Finally, my number one pet peeve is confusion of “it’s” and “its.” The key to using these correctly is to remember that “it’s” is a contraction of “it is.” If you can slip “is” after “it,” use an apostrophe.

Correct: The dog wagged its tail. You wouldn’t say “The dog wagged it is tail.”

Correct: It’s time to draw this blog to a close. Yes, it is.

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I Don’t Want to Brag, But…

June 6th, 2011 · Marketing, Publicity, Writing

A certain discount store has been running a television ad focused on bragging about the bargain buys women were able to find. The message hasn’t sent me shopping, but it did make me think about bragging.

Some of my clients, particularly women, have told me that they find it difficult to write about themselves and their businesses because it feels like bragging. I don’t know if men have trouble with this, but many women have been raised with the idea that bragging is improper, and it is better to sit quietly in the background and let others shine.

This attitude doesn’t work well in business, where your challenge is to tell the world what makes your business better than your competitors. It is also a problem if you are looking for work. The purpose of your resume is to let employers know what makes you the best prospect for the job at hand.

How can we learn to brag effectively?

Show, don’t tell. This is advice frequently given to writers. Think about a typical mystery movie. Aren’t you more interested in watching a dramatization of what happened than in hearing the detective sum it up for the assembled suspects? In business writing, this means that instead of saying, “We make the best widgets,” you say, “Our widgets are computer-designed and outperform other brands by 60 percent.” List the properties that make them so good, and how they outperform all other widgets.
Concentrate on the benefits. What you particularly want to show is how your product or service will benefit your audience. Focus on how it will help them solve their problems.
Be passionate. If you reveal your passion for what you do, it will become obvious that you are probably good at it.
Be appropriate. There is a time for everything, and conversely, there is a wrong time for everything. Do your bragging on your website and your LinkedIn profile, or during your introduction at a business meeting. A party or a backyard picnic, or even a chamber of commerce mixer, might not be the right time and place.
Listen as well as talk. Don’t just talk about your product or service, let the other half of your conversation do the same — and listen to him or her. This helps you build a relationship, and it’s good for business.
Let others talk for you. Perhaps the best way to brag is through testimonials from people who have used your services in the past and who like what you do.

Get over the idea that you shouldn’t brag. You are good at what you do. Don’t be afraid to let the world know.

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Put It into Words

May 9th, 2011 · Writing

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor

“You do not know what you yourself think until you put it into words.”

Garrison Keillor said this in a documentary about his radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” I frequently listen to his show, and I saw the film on public television a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t note the name, but I think it was this one.

I was so struck by the truth of his statement that I jotted it down. “You do not know what you yourself think…” This is why we can’t remember experiences of our childhood before a certain age. Until we were able to put them into words, we could not comprehend what we were experiencing.

It’s what separates us from other animals. They have no language and so can’t be aware of what they are thinking. Certainly they experience feelings, but they don’t know their thoughts.

Until we put them into words, we don’t know what we think about our business plans, our marketing ideas, and our goals. I believe that to really know what we think, and to be able to act on our thoughts, we must not only “put it into words,” we must also write the words down.

Most leaders of seminars designed to improve people’s performance in one way or another ask the attendees not only to think about what they want to do and changes they want to make — they also ask the attendees to write their thoughts and ideas down. They know that this takes our thoughts from the realm of fantasy and makes them real and meaningful to us.

To enhance your success, put your thoughts into words. And write them down.

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What’s Going On? Get the Word Out with a Business Newsletter

April 1st, 2011 · Marketing, Publicity

Yes, I’m writing this on April Fool’s Day; but what I’m saying is no joke. Business newsletters are a great way to stay in contact with your past, present — and future — clients.

A few years ago business newsletters were usually printed and mailed. This is still an option. However, in today’s fast-moving online world they are usually sent by email.

Here’s what one email marketing business, Constant Contact, says about email newsletters: “It’s the easy, effective, and affordable way to keep your audience coming back!” They add that “attractive, professional-looking email communications are better and more effective than regular email.”

I have used Constant Contact with client newsletters for a few years, and they get better and more user-friendly all the time. They provide a wealth of templates and are readily available to help when you need it — and they are not very expensive. There are other companies as well. Investigate and make your choice.

What should you include in your business newsletter? There is probably something you really want to tell your clients and potential clients about right now: a coming sale, a new product, an award you won. This is your vehicle to tell them whatever you want them to know. But if you run out of ideas, here are some content ideas that give your customers good information about who you are and why they should continue to do business with you.

Every issue should include your logo and contact information. It is also good to add your mission statement. The following are some article ideas for your business newsletter:

  • Profile of business owner
  • Profiles of employees
  • Particular recent accomplishments of owner or employees
  • Stories of recent interesting or unusual completed assignments
  • Client testimonials
  • Profile of a particular client
  • Tips on different ways to use your product/service that people may not know about
  • Coming events at your business
  • Upcoming or continuing special offers
  • Special coupon for readers of newsletter
  • Listing of where/how your clients may purchase your products/services
  • Photos of your products
  • Photos of recent events and accomplishments
  • For the health industry — nutrition, diet, or exercise tips
  • For nonprofit organizations — community alliances with other organizations

It’s good to start a running list of specific article ideas so that you always have an idea of what you want to say in the next issue.

Your newsletter can be weekly, monthly, quarterly — the frequency depends on how fast things are moving at your business or organization. It should come at a rate that keeps your business in front of your clients’ minds but is not annoying. If it does become annoying to them, there should always be a way for them to unsubscribe. But your goal is to make your newsletter so interesting that they want to read it, and they look forward to receiving it.

I welcome your questions or comments.

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The Truth about Press Releases

March 19th, 2011 · Marketing, Publicity

There are no guarantees with press releases, but they are worth a try if you have some news to announce.

Press releases are the way you announce the latest news about your company to newspapers, radio and television stations—even bloggers. Editors may pick up your information and give you free press coverage—or they may not. If you want to guarantee that your announcement appears in the press, you must pay for an ad to assure that your words appear, just the way you want them.

To increase the odds of your release being used, follow accepted press release style. A press release must have the essential information—the who, what, when, where and why—in the first paragraph.

Picture a busy editor. Often the first paragraph is all he/she will read before deciding whether to ditch the release or to use it. Further paragraphs amplify the basic information, in order of items that are most likely to hook the editor.

You should also remember that the release serves a double duty. It must interest the editor enough to want to use it, and, even better, to write an article about it. But some editors, particularly on local papers, may want to save themselves some trouble and use some or most of the text of the release itself in the body of the article or item they end up printing. So the release must be written in a way that not only will catch the interest of a busy editor, but also will be easily understood by the general public.

The release ought to be no more than one page. If all your information will not fit on one page, you can attach a fact sheet as a second page. The editor will use it if he/she decides to write a longer article.

It’s good to include pictures. Editors always need them. But to make it easier on the editor or reporter the pictures should be sent as separate image attachments, not embedded in the release.

Press releases are a way to reach out to the public with an announcement about your business. If you succeed in getting free press coverage, they are well worth the effort.

For more about the differences between press releases and ads, and about how to write a press release, read my blog post “Who Needs a Press Release?

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Playing with Words

March 1st, 2011 · Uncategorized

Words can be amazing.

Words can astonish and amaze.

Have you ever heard of the word flychter? What is a dipthong? These are just two of the words you would know more about if you listened to “Says You!” on National Public Radio.

This show is great fun for anyone interested in words. Each week two teams of three experts–who are funny as well as knowledgeable–test their wits on a series of games about words. Last week’s program featured aviation jargon, words used in phonetics, and “what comes next?” a game in which contestants had to figure out the next in a series of words from more or less obscure sources. Other categories may concern the meaning and derivation of words, distinguishing between words whose meanings are similar but not identical, or decoding some wicked puns.

Every week the contestants must figure out the meanings of two particular words. I don’t know how they find these words, but let’s just say that most people have never heard of them. One team has a few minutes during which two team members make up a meaning for the word. The third team member has been given the correct meaning. Then the second team tries to guess which is the real definition. Last week’s words were flychter and roo. It turns out that flychter means “to run with outstretched arms, as a child” and roo means “to pluck wool.” The last was controversial because nearly everyone has heard that word used to denote a kangaroo. Too easy, folks!

Here in the Bay Area “Says You!” airs at 4 p.m. on Sundays on KQED radio. I highly recommend it to get into a writing frame of mind and have some fun at the same time.

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Recipe for a Tasty Blog

January 24th, 2011 · Marketing

Seafood Gumbo

Seafood Gumbo

One day several years ago I prepared lunch for three French chefs: Rene Verdon, former White House chef; Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys Restaurant in San Francisco; and Roland Passot of the Left Bank Restaurant in Larkspur. To make the experience less terrifying I opted against cooking French food and prepared a New Orleans-style seafood gumbo, using a recipe given to me by a friend who had once lived in New Orleans.

About a dozen people joined us for lunch out on the deck, and the food was tasty. The chefs graciously complimented my cooking.

What does this have to do with writing a blog? Writing, like cooking, goes better if you have a good recipe. That doesn’t mean you have to follow it without question, step by step; really good cooks usually cook from memory and intuition and may not even use a recipe. But you have to know how the recipe works first–what to put in, and how to combine the ingredients for best results–before you can depart from it and begin to improvise.

Here is my recipe for a good business blog:


Tantalizing bits of specialized information.
One or two images.
A few details about your business.
A dash of opinion.
A give-away.
An occasional joke, puzzle, or contest.
Lots of links.


Combine ingredients in a lively, personal manner.
Keep it short.
Don’t forget to proofread.
Write regularly.

That’s it. You may disagree–Most cooks have their own special way of preparing a dish. I welcome comments about your own blogging methods. If you haven’t tried it yet, go ahead, and don’t be nervous. You will get better with practice. The world is waiting to hear what you have to say.

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Why Should Your Business Have a Blog?

January 12th, 2011 · Marketing

blogsA blog can sell your readers on your particular brand, who you are, what you do, and what sets you apart from your competitors.

Since you are reading one now, you probably already know that a blog is a type of website that works like a diary, with new material added (ideally) on a regular basis. The term comes from blending web plus log. A blog can contain news, comments and opinions, descriptions of places or events, advice or instruction.

Through your blog you can inform your readers about the latest news concerning your business or industry.  It also gives your readers an opportunity to react and contribute.  By bringing readers to your website it raises your search engine ranking.

According to WordPress, through which many blogs—including this one—are composed, “Your favorite thing about having a blog may soon be this—they naturally attract search engine traffic.”

According to one blog, fastwonderblog.com, “the number of people who read blogs is growing, and these people expect you to have a blog. Not only are more people reading blogs, these blogs are influencing purchasing decisions, which is important for every company.”

The website technorati.com, a search engine for searching blogs, now (as of this writing—by the time you read this there will be more) lists 1,251,260 blogs, of which 22,000 deal with business.

Which brings us to the next question: How do you write your blog so that people want to read it? That will be the subject of my next blog.

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